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School referendum officially in the works

The Bemidji School Board has agreed to make its second attempt in two years to pass an operating levy referendum.

The number of questions on the ballot, however, remains open to discussion.

On Monday night, the board voted 5-1 to hold a referendum asking voters to renew a five-year operating levy at the current $501 per-pupil rate. As part of Monday night's vote, the board agreed to continue discussion of potentially adding a second ballot question.

Voting in opposition was board member Gene Dillon.

"I think one question is plenty," he said. "I think the best thing we can do is go with the $501. ... I think it's a tough time to ask people for more."

Dillon said he believes talking about possibly having two questions on the ballot is a mistake based on the failure of last fall's effort to extend and expand the school district's current levy. Last fall's ballot had two questions, which he said confused many voters.

Board member John Pugleasa, who offered the motion that was approved Monday night, said it would take a lot to convince him to include a second question on the ballot. But, he said, he wanted the opportunity to discuss it further.

Board member Bill Faver said he also is in favor of keeping the discussion of a second question open.

Pugleasa noted, "The difficult thing is it's the only tool we have in the box."

Board member Carol L. Johnson agreed.

"Until that gets changed by the Legislature, we're stuck," she said.

On last fall's ballot, the first question asked voters to continue the current operating levy of $501 per resident pupil for another six years while the second question asked voters to raise that amount by $199 to $700 per resident pupil each year for six years.

With today's economy, Pugleasa suggested a shorter levy period -- five years -- for this fall's referendum.

Without the renewal of the current levy, the school district will lose a total of $3.2 million per year after the levy ends, which is scheduled to occur at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

Superintendent Jim Hess said in an interview Tuesday that there needs to be a sense of urgency to pass the referendum this fall. If it doesn't pass, he said "an enormous black cloud" will hang over the school district.

"That's a horrible position for a school district to be in," Hess said.

He said the school district wants to meet students' needs and help them achieve their highest potential.

"We want to give them the best education that we can," Hess said.

He said he thinks maintaining the current levy for another five years is reasonable.

"I wouldn't recommend going any less than this," he said.

With less than $501 per resident pupil, Hess said the school district would have to make reductions in programs and personnel.

Due to inflation, $501 per resident pupil will buy less now than it did five years ago, added Ann Long Voelkner, board chairwoman.

Board member Steven Johnson suggested the campaign for this fall's referendum include a list of what the school district will cut if the referendum doesn't pass.

Possible priorities

On Monday night, the board discussed possible priorities for using the levy dollars, if approved in the referendum.

"Everything that we wanted last year hasn't gone away," Steven Johnson said.

If voters had approved the $501 option last fall, the school district planned to maintain what it is providing through the current operating levy -- all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 prep program, school bus replacement and class size reduction.

With the additional $199 per resident pupil, which would have generated about $1 million more each year, the school district planned to hire another counselor at Bemidji High School, another counselor at Bemidji Middle School, a library media specialist at BMS, another school district nurse and three additional teachers.

The school district also planned to use the extra money to support its computer technology backbone; buy equipment that would help strengthen science, technology, engineering and math programs; start a textbook replacement fund; and improve school safety, with the primary focus being on improvements at BMS.

Hess cautioned the board to not make any promises that could be misinterpreted in the upcoming referendum.

He said he believes all-day, every-day kindergarten and transportation are huge priorities that could benefit from renewed levy dollars. He said all-day, every-day kindergarten makes a huge difference in how students do in school. Also, he said it's important to maintain an excellent transportation system due to the size of the school district.

However, Hess said he doesn't believe it would be appropriate to say the school district would use renewed levy dollars to further reduce class sizes right now. He said the school district has very favorable class sizes and it will do the best job it can with the resources it has to maintain low class sizes.